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Arizona Holds The School Choice Crown, But Can It Keep It?

If school choice opponents refer Arizona’s education savings accounts expansion to the ballot, they will find voter sentiment has shifted.

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Supporters of education freedom and choice have rightly praised the Arizona state legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey for expanding eligibility for the state’s K-12 education savings accounts (ESAs) to all students. Now all Arizona families will be empowered to choose the learning environments that align with their values and work best for their children.

That is, unless opponents of education choice block the expansion from taking effect.

They’ve done it before. When state lawmakers sought to expand ESA eligibility in 2018, the anti-choice group Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS) gathered enough signatures to put the would-be expansion up for referendum. Voters rejected the measure by a nearly two-to-one margin.

Ever since, SOS has claimed that the vote proved that Arizona voters don’t want school choice. They have condemned all subsequent attempts to expand the ESA as being “against the will of the voters.”

That narrative is politically useful for SOS as they gather signatures to refer the latest expansion to the ballot, but the reality is much more complicated. In fact, many voters opposed the 2018 measure because they supported education choice. Though technically it expanded ESA-eligibility to all students, practically speaking only a few could benefit. The measure included a cap of about 30,000 students — less than 3 percent of the state’s 1.1-plus million K-12 students.

Had the measure passed, that cap would have essentially been set in stone due to the Voter Protection Act, which requires a three-fourths super-majority to amend any law enacted by the voters on the ballot. For that reason, national school choice groups like EdChoice and Excel in Ed sat out the ballot fight, while others like the American Federation for Children openly opposed it.

This time is different. If SOS manages to gather the roughly 119,000 valid signatures needed to refer the latest ESA expansion to the ballot, there will be no cap on participation, nor any other policy reason for school choice supporters to sit out the fight. This time around, the school choice coalition should be more united, organized, and better funded than in 2018.

More Support and Experience

Voters are also more supportive of choice policies than four years ago. In the wake of the district schools’ response to Covid — unnecessarily long shutdowns, medically dubious mask mandates, uneven Zoom school, and increased parental awareness of radical curriculum content — voter support for school choice has reached all-time highs. A Morning Consult poll released earlier this month found that 65 percent of Arizonans and 75 percent of parents of school-aged children support ESAs. Meanwhile, only a third believe that their local district schools are on the “right track.”

Voter support for education choice in Arizona might also stem from families’ positive experience with the programs. Arizona was the first state to enact tax-credit scholarships in 1997, the first to enact ESAs in 2011, and is poised to be the first to make every child eligible for an ESA. (In 2021, West Virginia came close — it’s Hope Scholarship ESA is available to all K-12 students who are switching out of a public school or entering kindergarten.)

Gradual Expansion in Arizona

Originally, Arizona’s ESAs were available only to students with special needs. Participating families loved it. In a 2013 survey, nine out of 10 ESA families reported being satisfied or very satisfied with the education their child was receiving while using ESA. By contrast, only 29 percent were satisfied with the public school their child had attended previously. The difference was even more pronounced among families in the lowest income quintile: 100 percent of them expressed satisfaction with ESAs (89 percent were “very satisfied”), compared to only 22 percent who had been satisfied with their prior public school.

The ESA policy’s popularity proved persuasive for state policymakers, who repeatedly expanded eligibility over the past decade. Before this year, in addition to students with special needs, lawmakers had made ESAs available to children adopted through the state foster care system, students assigned to low-performing district schools, Native American children living on tribal lands, the children of active-duty military personnel or military or police killed in the line of duty, and siblings of otherwise eligible students.

Strong Opposition

Despite their popularity — or perhaps because of it — opponents frequently claim that universal ESAs would “destroy public education.” Beth Lewis of SOS Arizona recently called ESAs the “nail in the coffin” for public schools. Former Arizona House Rep. Diego Rodriguez claimed that ESAs are “designed to kill public education.”

“I think it’s a very serious mistake and the result will be that, within a decade, Arizona will have a very, very poorly educated adult population,” warned Carol Corbett Burris, executive director of the anti-school choice Network for Public Education. “Maybe that’s the game.”

These prophesies of doom are nothing new. Back in 1997, the then-president of the Arizona Educators Association, Kay Lybeck, lamented that the new tax-credit scholarship policy represented the state “giv[ing] up on the ideal of public education.” The Arizona Daily Sun gravely editorialized that the scholarships would “further weaken the public school system.”

School Choice Improves Public Schools

Not only have these dire consequences failed to materialize, but the opposite has occurred.

In the last two decades, Arizona’s EdChoice Share — the portion of the population utilizing private school choice policies — has grown to the largest in the nation, at nearly 7 percent, while about 20 percent of Arizona students attend a charter school. Meanwhile, Arizona’s school system has led the nation in academic improvement, as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress, commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card.

It should come as no surprise that when families have lots of options, public schools improve their performance in response. Out of 28 studies examining the effect of choice policies on the performance of public schools, 25 found statistically significant positive effects.

GOP More Supportive

The proven track record and high levels of voter support have translated into political support, particularly among Republicans. Over the years, the GOP caucus has grown increasingly, though not universally, supportive of choice policies. The few remaining anti-school choice holdouts in the legislature have paid a price.

Earlier this year, the Maricopa County Republican Party overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning three GOP legislators for voting against school choice, which is a state GOP platform issue. The resolution said that the county Republican party “opposes Republicans who campaign as conservatives while voting against school choice and against the best interests of students and parents – specifically Representatives Joanne Osborne, Michelle Udall, and Joel John.”

Although each of those representatives voted for the legislative package that included the ESA expansion this year, Republican voters apparently felt it was too little, too late. In this year’s GOP primaries, all three lost their races (two legislative and one for superintendent of public instruction) to candidates who supported school choice.

If choice opponents refer Arizona’s ESA expansion to the ballot, they shouldn’t expect the cake walk they experienced in 2018. But neither should supporters of choice get complacent. Though proponents are more unified this time around and voter sentiment has shifted in their favor, their opponents are well-organized and well-funded. They will pour everything they have into blocking families from getting a taste of education freedom that they will be unlikely to relinquish later.

Only one thing is certain: whatever happens in Arizona will have implications for the education choice movement nationwide.


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